Old port of Zhanglin remains a sacred place for overseas Chinese

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 07 May, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 07 May, 2008, 12:00am

When friends visit Shantou , Zheng Wenbi likes to take them to the old port of Zhanglin in the Chenghai district, even though the place has become a bit rundown over the years.

Zhanglin was a flourishing port in the Qing dynasty and well known beyond the empire's borders, appearing on a map published in Britain in 1875. The port was the birthplace of the red-head junk, a commercial vessel that took immigrants to parts of Southeast Asia. In the early 20th century, Ms Zheng's great-grandfather, like tens of thousands of people from Guangdong, left Zhanglin on one of the vessels to make a living elsewhere.

'Just about every family here has someone who migrated to Hong Kong, Taiwan, Southeast Asia, America, Australia and all over the world during the 19th and 20th centuries,' she said. 'It sounds like a fairytale to us. But it was really a sad experience to those who had to leave home to go thousands of kilometres away across the sea.

'My great-grandfather was a poor peasant with no land. He heard from a neighbour one day that there were a few rich men in town who had returned home after working for many years in a faraway foreign land called Gold Mountain - San Francisco - in Flowery Flag Country - the US.'

Keen not to remain poor for the rest of their lives, Ms Zheng's great-grandfather and his brothers signed away their freedom for a trip to the US. 'The contractor paid their passage to Gold Mountain. But they had to work for the contractor for three years without pay, only for food and shelter,' she said. 'Guangdong people called such migrants of the last century 'human pigs'.'

Ms Zheng said almost all young men in her hometown at that time bade farewell to their wives and parents and risked their lives from the port. 'Many of them settled overseas. They worked hard and sent money home regularly.' As more and more people set out from Zhanglin, Shantou became known as the hometown of 'overseas Chinese'.

In the 1930s, the Shantou port had the third biggest throughput of cargo in China and was its seventh largest business city. It became a transport hub, and the trade and distribution centre for a region covering parts of Fujian and Jiangxi . Today, more than 20 million people overseas can trace their roots to Guangdong. But the heyday of the port has passed and Zhanglin has grown desolate.

'This is a sacred place for overseas Chinese and should not be forgotten,' Ms Zheng said.